A child is disinvited from a birthday party because a parent doesn’t want “terrorists” there. A student athlete fears he will get kicked off the track team for missing practice during Ramadan. A boy hears classmates yell an Arabic expression praising God in a mocking way.
Students recount these and other unsettling experiences in a new book that aims to raise awareness about anti-Muslim bias in schools. In the book, called “Equal Opportunity: A Collection of Injustices faced by Muslims in the American Education System,” the New Jersey authors — teens and students themselves — write about the harm that bullying and exclusionary school policies can do. They recommend ways to remedy these problems with inclusive policies and education about anti-Muslim bullying.
The Muslim Students for Justice Organization, a Paramus-based nonprofit founded in June, published the book to share the experiences with peers across the country who may be facing similar struggles. Asad Gilani, Mehreen Khateeb and Mateen Aminyar, who make up the group’s executive board, wrote the 100-page book, which is self-published and available on Amazon and includes a mix of researched essays, interviews and short stories.
“We want this to be a guidebook for other Muslim students, so they can understand and know that these injustices are not one in a million and that there are ways to rectify it,” said Gilani, a junior at Paramus High School and the group’s president.
Excluded from party
Alayna Khan, in an interview with Gilani featured in the book, said teasing and bullying grew worse around 2016, calling it “an awful year for Muslims.” That’s when President Donald Trump boasted of a “Muslim ban” on travelers to the U.S. and the news was dominated by terror attacks committed by extremist Muslims.
“Unfortunately, people seem to not be able to separate these vicious terrorists from peaceful and normal Muslims like myself,” Khan said.
At school, classmates learned from social media that she was Muslim and distanced themselves from her. Then, a friend told her she could no longer come to her birthday party “because my mom doesn’t want any terrorists there,” Khan recounted.
Feeling anxious and upset, Khan didn’t know where to turn.
“I think they just gave a figurative slap on the wrist to some of the children, but nothing harsh enough for them to stop,” Khan said in the book’s interview. “Frankly, them not doing enough put a huge strain on my mental health.”
It also took a toll on the pride she had felt in her faith.
“I originally had such a strong inner identity of what it meant to be Muslim, even though I didn’t shout it off the rooftops or anything,” she said. “However, post all of this hate, I wanted to distance myself from the religion, in order to better my day-to-day life.”
For other students, challenges stemmed from school policies that didn’t consider their needs.
Aminyar ran track but was afraid to tell coaches that he needed to skip practices or take breaks because he was fasting for Ramadan. While fasting, observant Muslims don’t eat food or drink water between sunrise and sunset.
The athletic policy didn’t include religious accommodations, and he worried that his coaches wouldn’t understand or respect his decision to fast. Eventually, he shared his situation with a coach who was accommodating, and he lobbied the district to adopt a more inclusive athletic policy.
Three ways schools can do better
In Paramus, the Muslim Students for Justice Organization rallied the district to change its athletic policy to give more flexibility to fasting students in sports and physical education. It wasn’t the only change the group successfully promoted.
In the book, Gilani wrote about how he felt guilty for eating Rice Krispy treats from the cafeteria made with marshmallows that contain gelatin, taboo for Muslims because it is sometimes made with pig products. He could eat most vegetarian options like chips and fruit, but not meat-based entrees, and he often felt hungry, he said.
“It’s a matter of equality,” he wrote. “No student should be denied the privilege of buying food when their peers can freely select their meals.”
Gilani met with school administrators to lay out a case for halal foods. The students celebrated when Paramus agreed in the fall to sell food that is halal — meaning it is prepared according to Islamic teaching — in its cafeterias. In the book, he interviewed former New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal, who led efforts to offer halal foods in city schools and offered advice on getting such measures passed.
Espinal argued that it was a matter of student health and worth the extra cost to the district.
“What really helped us get to the finish line was when allied groups came together and became part of the process,” the book quotes Espinal as saying. “This is why I think it’s so important to build on advocacy groups and allies and make them aware of how it’s important to be a part of these conversations.”
For Khateeb, a lack of awareness about Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, was a problem. When she took off from school, she hesitated to tell friends why, even lying that she had been sick, because of the negative stereotypes associated with Islam.
As she grew older, Khateeb learned more about Islam and grew both proud and eager to tell others about her traditions. She supported a years-long community campaign to add Eid al-Fitr to the school’s holiday calendar. Last year, the Paramus school board voted to officially recognize the holiday and close schools for Eid.
Pushing for change hasn’t been easy. Initially, the students planned to have a school-based club, but Paramus officials wanted them to change the name, Gilani said. “We want to be who we are, so we started a 501(c)(3) instead,” he said, using the Internal Revenue Service term for a nonprofit organization.
With an inclusive athletic policy, halal foods on the menu and Eid on the holiday calendar, the student group believes the Paramus district is showing more acceptance of its Muslim students. That inclusion sends a positive message, they say.
“Having these Muslim-benefiting reforms made in schools normalizes Muslims as regular peers and student — not as a monstrous, isolated group of individuals,” Gilani wrote.
Taking the message to other districts
The student group has about 20 members, mostly from Paramus but also from other North Jersey districts and out of state. Less than a year old, it already has met with local legislators and plans to teach a class for youth on speaking out against bias at the Fusion Muslim Community Center of North Jersey. The center will also host a Feb. 5 book launch event, said manager Farhat Khan.
The group members want to help peers who are seeking similar changes in other districts. They are also calling for anti-bullying education efforts in schools so the staff can identify bias and know what Muslim students are going through. The impact of bullying isn’t just immediate, they say. It can affect mental health, feelings of self-worth and academic performance.
Students said they are done trying to lie low and hide their identity. Now, by joining together and achieving reforms, they hope to make it easier for students to fit in “but keep who they are as Muslims.”
The first step to change is communication, said Aminyar.
“Talk to people and build a community in your own school,” he said. “The school itself can help you fight for change.”